Zach Galifianakis: Comedy's Sensitive, Sarcastic Sensation

With "Between Two Ferns," Zach Galifianakis has become a comedic sensation.

BySheila Marikar
October 05, 2010, 4:44 PM

Oct. 6, 2010 — -- There are the loud, brash, in-your-face folks (see: Will Ferrell, Aziz Ansari, Kathy Griffin).

Then there are the quieter comedians. The subtler sort. Zach Galifianakis belongs to that camp, a dollop of a man who lives in fuzzy sweaters and a bushy beard, who speaks in monotone deadpan and seems much more suited to the North Carolina woods than to New York, Los Angeles or any comedy-centric city.

But a country bumpkin Galifianakis is not. Nor is he the socially awkward mess that stole the show in last summer's box office winner, "The Hangover." (Of Alan, the wolf pack herder and soon-to-be brother-in-law of Justin Bartha's Doug, Galifianakis said, "That character is a very big moron.")

He's got a wider range of movies under his belt now -- last year's "Up in the Air," this year's "Dinner for Schmucks," this week's "It's Kind of a Funny Story," and the upcoming "Due Date." He also has an out-of the-box celebrity interview series that gets millions of views online -- "Between Two Ferns," part of the Funny or Die network of Internet hilarity. And he's got a bone to pick with Hollywood.

"I think it is somewhat of a fantasy interview for me to be rude to the Hollywood types, which I hold of a certain disdain and egotism," he said in a recent interview with ABC News Now's "Popcorn with Peter Travers." "The sycophantic way that Hollywood machine runs -- it's fun to make fun of it. That's how 'Between Two Ferns' started."

Meant to mimic a cable access show, "Between Two Ferns" books stars mainstream outlets covet, like Sean Penn, Jon Hamm, Natalie Portman and Conan O'Brien. But instead of cooing over his guests, Galifianakis turns the Q&A into a mockery. He asks Hamm: "Is your middle name 'Honey-baked?'" He inquires about what Penn and his good friend Jack Nicholson do: "Where do you guys like to eat? Do y'all go to Long John Silver's or something?"

His proposition to Portman belongs in the dictionary definition of How Not to Conduct an Interview, Ever: "You're an accomplished actress, you've graduated from Harvard, you've done some great international charity work. Uh, what is your phone number?"

Recoiling in horror is routine behavior on Galifianakis' set. (The look of disgust Portman shoots him after he muses, "You shaved your head for 'V for Vendetta' -- did you also shave your V for vagina?" could kill a small animal.)

Some guests fight back. Conan O'Brien sticks up for himself when Galifianakis declares that he would make a better "Tonight Show" host -- that is, until he gets shoved out of his seat in favor of follow-up interviewee Andy Dick. Bradley Cooper starts slapping Galifianakis after he implies that Cooper's just a pretty face.

According to Galifianakis, his guests never know what's coming.

"They sit down, they agree to come. There is no discussion beforehand," he said. "It just happens, no real prep, no organization whatsoever."

The more shocked they seem, the better.

"Being able to say anything to anyone at any time regardless of if you are interviewing him or not is fun to do, and inappropriateness is really fun to me," he said. "When I see somebody being rude in public, I laugh, not because I agree with it, because I am laughing at them. That is kind of the take on 'Between Two Ferns' -- inappropriate humor."

Galifianakis isn't always inappropriate. The 41-year-old, North Carolina born-and-bred actor claims his true self bears little resemblance to his over-the-top "Hangover" character. His turn as a psych ward patient turned teen mentor in "It's Kind of a Funny Story" isn't his first in a serious movie -- besides "Up in the Air," he appeared in Penn's 2007 Oscar-nominated "Into the Wild," which probably explains how he got Penn on "Between Two Ferns" -- but it is his most meaty.

"I think I tricked [directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck] into believing that I could pull it off -- a more serious thing," he said. "I was also kind of flattered to be a part of something that was a little bit more of a sensitive story than just a big, loud comedy."

Zach Galifianakis, sensitive? Certainly. But there's no stopping his sarcastic streak, especially when he gets going about those Hollywood ego-maniacs he loves to hate.

"My mom needs to get permission to call me. Sometimes I will call her back," he said. "I will go 'Hi mom, it's Zach Galifianakis, what do you want to talk about?' She will say 'Why don't you call?' and I say 'I've changed. It's a new realm. I am hanging out with the California Raisins, McGruff the Crime Dog, a lot of other Hollywood types and I don't have time for my family.'"

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